The Vendome, Knoxville's Architectural Wonder of 1890

An anniversary homage to a forgotten landmark

One January evening, 120 years ago, witnessed an astonishing new presence on Clinch Avenue.

"Splendid," remarked gentlemen in top hats, looking upward. "Did you ever see anything like it?"

"A more imposing building could hardly be conceived," wrote one reporter. It "promoted an air of metropolitan significance," wrote another.

It was "elegant... undoubtedly the handsomest structure in the city," according to the Knoxville Journal. "This palatial structure has raised its head almost into the clouds." In January, 1890, no one had ever seen such a tall building in Knoxville: the brick and stone building with a round tower of sorts forming part of it rose five stories above the sidewalk, with a high-pitched dome even above that. Adorned with a stone cascade of balconies and vestibules and embellished with elaborate sandstone carvings, it looked like something in a dream. It was known as the Vendome.

Presumably named for the Parisian square known for its fashionable hotels, the Vendome apparently got the French pronunciation from the start. It was announced as "an apartment house and French cafe."

It "opened to the public in a blaze of glory," according to a headline. In those days when electricity was new, it was the city's most conspicuous building, especially at night: an architectural torch "illuminated from basement to garret [with] innumerable electric lights, and hundreds of gas jets..."

"Open to the public" perhaps misrepresented the invitation-only event. The 60 "gourmandiers" who appeared, were a posh crowd thinned only a little by a winter epidemic. Known in 1890 as La Grippe, the disease, probably the same deadly influenza epidemic that swept Chicago and other cities that year, had been fatal to some. Just that evening, 49-year-old stone-carver and saloonkeeper John McGrath, one of Knoxville's best-known Irish citizens, died in his home around the corner from the Vendome. But the threat of deadly microbes couldn't keep the fashionable away from the event of the season.

Well after dark, well-dressed men and women, young and old, all holding neatly printed invitation cards, followed the famously dirty sidewalks of Knoxville after dark to this spot between Prince Street and Walnut, and into the wonderful Vendome. They boarded the elevator, one of the first in town, or mounted the broad staircase, to ascend to the fifth floor. The unusual dining room was built in a semicircular shape. Frescoes livened the walls. Each arrangement of tables shaped the letter V. Windows opened onto the dark city, only a little chilly that night. No one had witnessed this view of Knoxville, from Market Square to the courthouse to the university, though at that hour, most of what was visible were lights in windows and a few gaslit streets.

An Italian string band was there, playing popular favorites. That "Italian band" appeared at many swank events of that era. Newspapers name the people who installed the Vendome's wallpaper, but never the musicians who played.

The backers were a couple of local guys, real-estate man Lewis K. Burns and physician Herman G. Bayless, who moved into the Vendome—as well as an ambitious entrepreneur from Louisville, William J. Berg. He seems to have been the dreamer of this dream. In Boston he found a French chef named Henri Donnett, and eventually assembled a team of five cooks, three French, one Scottish, one German, who may have gotten along long enough to serve all 10 courses that night.

The dishes at the Vendome were "exclusively French." Only one course was recorded in the papers. "Lynnhaven en Coquilles" a dish now obscure except that it was probably some sort of shellfish, and "cafe moca a la francaise." And after dessert, cigars.

The architects were locals. Leon Beaver was a well-known architect who had moved here from Dayton, Ohio, and his partner W.C. Hoffmeister.

It would be run as an apartment building, half of it on "the European plan"—which usually means meals were extra—half of it on "the French flat plan." By one account, it had 63 rooms in all; by another, 100. Maybe nobody knew for sure.

Shortly before midnight—it was a Monday night, by the way—prominent "merchant prince" Captain William P. Chamberlain stood and announced "a change in the feast." There would be toasts. Corks popped, and waiters delivered drinks. First, "To Our Hosts" and "To Our City." For the latter toast, German-born baker Peter Kern, making his first appearance outside of City Hall as the newly inaugurated Mayor of Knoxville, stood and said the fantastic new building made him feel like the proud father of a baby boy.

Toasts to "Our Trade" followed, then "Our State," then, "Our Girls."

E.T. Sanford rose to give that one. Three or four decades later, he'd be a justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, but that night he was a young lawyer of 24, and probably Knoxville's most eligible bachelor. He recited, from Sheridan, "Here's to the maiden of bashful 15 / Likewise to the widow of 50 / Here's to the flaunting extravagant queen / And here's to the housewife that's thrifty / Let the toast pass / Drink to the lass! / I'll warrant she'll prove an excuse for the glass!"

Others recited poetry, too, despite the hour, and there were midnight historical narratives. One of the hosts, Walter Cocke, quoted, or perhaps paraphrased, Louis XIV: "He who runs the griddle rules the world."

Then, "To Ourselves"; newspaper editor William Rule gave that one. There were more. The building glowed into the wee hours of Tuesday morning. Then the band played "Home Sweet Home," and the guests took the hint.

The Sentinel remarked that the Vendome "provided what has long been needed, a restaurant for ladies and gentlemen on the European plan that will rival any eating house in America." It was a "Southern Delmonico."

I'm not sure it was ever that. But the Vendome was long considered an enviable residence.

Don't look for it. It stood as a Knoxville landmark for half a century, but since about 1942, the Vendome space at 417 West Clinch has been a surface parking lot. We have become a practical people.